A FAITHFUL, ONE HANDBAG WOMAN
by Sudha Balagopal
AJ could not have picked a worse time to tell Mini he was leaving, with the shuttle parked outside to take her to the airport, her red-checked suitcase by the door. She was buckling her shoes when he told her. Appalling. To think a second later she’d have lifted her face for a kiss.
Just like that, he said it. “I have to leave. We can’t continue like this.” As if it was somehow her fault.
She might have brushed it off and laughed and answered, “Yes, dear, I promise I’ll cut my travel next quarter.” His tone was too serious, too final for that. Instead, she asked, “What do you mean?”
With their hectic schedules one of them was always traveling on business. They’d greet each other like passing roommates, with a perfunctory kiss and a hug, as she returned from a trip or he left on one.
“We are not working anymore.” He pointed to her and then himself.
She spluttered. “What? How?” A second later, “Is it a who?”
She caught the briefest flash of embarrassment before he said, “No…not that.”
The shuttle driver knocked on the open front door right then, opened it wider. “I’ll take the suitcase for you, ma’am.”
The coward. AJ chose the timing with care; he didn’t want to get into details. “I’ll clear out my stuff, and I’ll be gone by the time you return,” he said.
Ten years erased in twenty-four hours.
An avalanche of thoughts. She had a make-or-break business meeting in Phoenix the next morning. This marital situation was too fragile, too raw; the meeting could be canceled. Prioritize. The marriage was not over yet. There could be opportunity to salvage things. If AJ wanted to fix things. Could AJ have allowed a third person to step into their two- person domain? She’d get this meeting over with, get back early tomorrow; apprehend AJ before he did the irreversible. Or had he already?
She shut the door behind her with deliberate gentleness, took the shuttle to the airport.
* * * * *
“Hi!” the man at the window seat in the plane greeted Mini as she checked the number on her boarding pass. “I can change seats with you if you don’t like the middle seat.”
“Thank you, but no.” She certainly did not want to accept any favors, however minor, and wasn’t in a mood to start conversations with strangers on a plane. So easy for AJ to walk out of their marriage with a simple goodbye. Abbreviations, like his name, were his style.
“I’m Vik Dey,” the man in the window seat said. “That’s my favorite book.” He nodded at the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, in her hands. She looked at the book in confusion, wondered when exactly she’d picked it up.
He was polite; kind eyes made up for an unfortunate overbite. No one had ever offered to exchange a window seat for a middle seat with her. She could have upgraded to a better seat. Too many other things pressed on her mind today.
“Yes, mine too.” She pursed her lips. Had AJ met someone like this? With deliberate attempts at conversation? Must be someone young and attractive.
Vik did not seem to notice her reluctance. “What’s your name? Do you live in Phoenix?”
“Mini.” No point in telling Vik her last name. Soon it would not be hers anymore. “No, business trip.”
In the aisle seat, a pony-tailed, graying academic with a disapproving look. Him, she ignored. Deliberately, she placed her right elbow on the armrest, refusing to allow him the pleasure of that territory.
He didn’t intrude. Instead, he read and graded papers. She could have sworn he was listening to her slanted conversation with the neighbor on her left; the academic’s ear appeared to tilt her way a lot.
“From Denver, then?’
Vik shot pointed looks at her ring finger. The ring was at the jewelers, being polished. He didn’t seem to pick up on her short answers or her silences. All she wanted was to watch the words in her book swim before her eyes, think about the fact that she would soon be an ex-wife.
As the flight descended towards Phoenix, Vik said it was too bad he was continuing on to San Diego. “Would you like to get together, maybe get some dinner in Denver sometime? I’m in your hometown next week.”
Oh God! This was all she needed right now. Couldn’t prevent the shock of distraction. This was inappropriate. He must have noticed her discomfort, her confusion, her clenched teeth, her flushed face. She flicked her shoulder-length hair back a couple of times, stalled.
There should be a time for recovery, a decent burial for a dead relationship. Perhaps there was no harm in one dinner out. That might show AJ. Show him what? Should she give Vik her cell phone number or ask for his?
From the corner of her eye she noticed Vik’s profile, the curl of hair over his right ear. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to give an email address or add him as a friend on Facebook. A forty-year-old soon-to- be single woman didn’t know these things. God, she was out of it.
Yet, while Vik said goodbye to her, it was the academic in the aisle seat who retrieved her carry- on, a little rollaway, from the overhead bin. “Bad idea, bad idea,” she repeated to herself. She murmured a non-committal answer to Vik’s question, and didn’t thank the academic. Grabbing the rollaway, she rushed out of the plane.
As she watched the baggage carousel for her distinctive, red-checked suitcase filled with samples from her company, an overeager fellow passenger jostled her, scrambled her reverie. “Excuse me!” She enunciated every syllable. Her left hand held on to her rollaway suitcase a little tighter, with her right, she attempted to secure her handbag on her shoulder, hug it closer to her body.
It wasn’t there.
The heavy leather handbag was an extension of her body, the added pounds like another arm—one that made a deep indentation on her shoulder, as wide as her bra-strap. She quaked in consternation. Her life was contained in her handbag.
Perhaps it fell off when the ruffian shoved her in his eagerness to get to his baggage. No, she would have felt her shoulder get lighter, heard the bag fall. She stepped away from the carousel, blinked stupidly at the floor. Think, think, think.
She must have left it on the plane. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes since they landed. The plane had to still be here.
Terror gifted her with speed, propelled her through the teeming airport. People moved out of the way, accustomed to passengers about to miss their flights. The straps of her new high-heeled shoes chewed on her ankles.
She focused on retracing her path from the gate to the baggage claim area. Her handbag probably sat in the plane, under the seat or on the seat. Waiting for the next unscrupulous person who, by now, would know everything about her. Perhaps even assume her identity.
She must get back to the gate. After this halt, the flight was scheduled to go on to San Diego. She hurried up to Security Check. Relieved, she noticed there was no line, no one in front of the bored- looking older man who sat on a high stool twirling a pen in his hand.
“Please help me.” He didn’t react to her desperate voice, her wild hair, her panic-stricken eyes. “I just got off the plane from Denver, Southern Airlines flight 55 which is going on to San Diego. My handbag is on the plane. I got off and realized I don’t have it. I’ve got to go back and get it. Please?”
“ID and boarding pass,” he intoned, as if inured to desperate pleas.
“Listen to me. I’m telling you I don’t have my bag.” How could this dullard not get it? All of her identification was in her bag.
Two other security personnel manifested themselves, alerted by her angry volume.
“Sorry ma’am. We cannot let you go through security without proper documentation.”
“I HAVE to get my handbag. Come on, help me! What are you guys? A bunch of useless goons? Let me talk to your supervisor!” she screamed, “Hurry!”
By now a restless line had formed behind her. Murmurs of discontent floated.
“Step aside, ma’am,” a younger official said. “Let us take care of the passengers behind you. They have flights to take. Meanwhile, I’ll call my supervisor.”
“Can you not do something? You could accompany me to the plane.”
“I can’t leave my post. We have to follow security rules, ma’am. I can call my supervisor. She will be here in a few minutes. Be patient and please step aside. We have to take care of the people behind you. ”
“This is urgent! Get me someone right now. Don’t you understand I am about to lose everything!?”
“Ma’am, if you don’t want to wait for my supervisor, I suggest you go down to Ticketing. They will be able to help you there. I cannot let you through Security without proper identification.”
His studied, patient tones maddened her. Tears threatened. Stop. She was a capable person; she’d handled countless crises at work. This was no time to feel sorry for herself. She rushed from the security checkpoint. She peered at the escalator coming up to see if, perchance, her bag lay there. It didn’t. Think, think. Would this swarming mass of humanity notice a metallic looking handbag with big black buttons? Would one of them turn it in?
She ran down the escalator; the rollaway bounced behind her, clattered its way down to Ticketing. When she finally located Southern Airlines’ ticketing counters, she could see no airline personnel around. The airline must hire few people, she thought, intent on saving money, increasing their profit margins. Passengers milled around bright touch screens, sliding cards into slots on the kiosks, confirming flights, checking in luggage, printing boarding passes. They all seemed to know what to do. There was no personal help in this automated world.
Mini spotted a stout woman with a Southern Airlines nametag hanging by a thread round her neck. “It’s urgent. I need help,” she gasped.
“How can I help you?”
“I just arrived from Denver on Flight 55. I think I’ve left my handbag on the plane. Please, please help.”
“Give me a few moments to get my boss. Wait here. Won’t be more than five minutes.”
The uniformed woman spoke into a walkie-talkie, strode away from her. Her deadpan expression remained. Not even the pretense of sympathy or understanding.
Mini sat down on a stained plastic seat, gulped air; didn’t realize she’d so deprived herself of air. She was no exercise fiend, her legs unused to covering such distances in a short time. Her fault alone, the lack of vigilance. No, it was AJ’s fault.
She saw herself mirrored in the glass window, a plumpish woman past the first flush of youth in formal but crumpled pants and shirt, clutching the handle of her carry-on as if it were a crutch.
Where are you, handbag? A psychic would be able to tell her where her bag was right now. Perhaps if she focused her concentration on the handbag it would reveal itself.
She’d purchased it at a Black Friday sale three years ago when the black buttons enticed. The bag hadn’t left her side since. She was a faithful, one handbag woman. No array of colors for spring and fall, or a bag for every occasion. She used a bag until it fell apart, literally; the straps would break or the inner lining would tear, consuming her change and other small items. Only then would she acquire a replacement. Unlike AJ, who had no qualms about replacements.
* * * * *
The uniformed woman materialized at her side. “Come this way.”
Mini was taken to a minuscule office, where a cheerful blonde smiled a customer-service welcome. “Please, sit. I’m Angela Baker, the manager. I hear you have a problem.”
Her voice husky with controlled tears, Mini said, “Problem? That’s an understatement.”
“Do you know where you lost your handbag?”
“If I knew for sure, it would be simple, wouldn’t it?” she snapped, then realized this was one person who could help. “I think I left it on the plane. I came in on Flight 55.” She looked at the clock on the wall. “The plane should still be here. Can I please go get it?”
“Calm down. I’ll call the gate. Someone should be able to get into the aircraft and check for you. Be quicker this way, anyway. What color is the bag?”
“Brown, with big black buttons.”
“Unfortunately, the doors have been closed and the plane’s pulling away from the gate.”
“Don’t worry; airline personnel in San Diego should be able to search the plane as soon as it lands. Which should be in about an hour. What seat were you in?”
“Here’s what we can do. Let me get your details. Name, phone number. Please understand I need to do this, so I know when I receive the handbag that I am handing it over to the right person.”
Mini had nothing on her to prove her identity. No credit card, no driver’s license, no old boarding pass. No money or cell phone. No way to get out of this airport in a town that was not her home. And worst of all, someone, somewhere, had undoubtedly vacuumed up everything about her.
“Umm…My name is Mini. M-I-N-I. Not like the mouse. Last name…” she hesitated.
“Last name?” Angela Baker raised an eyebrow.
This last name would not be hers for too much longer. She’d probably revert to her maiden name. Strange, after ten years.
There’s a wallet in the handbag. Brown wallet. American Express card, Visa, a Chase debit card. Of course, my driver’s license. Oh, and a book. To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Any other cards?”
“The usual—library card, AAA card, health insurance card, some grocery store cards.”
“How much cash was in your wallet?’
“I can’t remember. Maybe two hundred dollars.”
“Your cell phone number?”
“I assume it was off since you were on a plane flying in?”
“Here in my rollaway. It’s dead. The charger is in my handbag.” She remembered shoving it into her handbag at the last minute.
“You are from here?”
“No, I live in Denver. I’m on a business trip to Phoenix.”
“Okay, first things first. Let’s see if someone turned in a bag. Let me make a few calls.”
Suddenly, all the fight left Mini. Nothing she could do now but allow the wheels of authority and procedure to take over. As if through a fog, she heard Angela huddled in telephonic conferences, first with the airline’s gate personnel, then with TSA, followed by Information and lastly with Lost & Found, all of whom informed her that no one had turned in a brown handbag with big black buttons.
The manager looked at her after the last phone call was complete, tapped a manicured finger on her forehead. “Did you have checked-in luggage?” Mini nodded. “Why don’t you get your luggage? I should have an update for you by the time you get back.”
* * * * *
In only a few hours, she mused on the way to Baggage Claim, she’d gone from having an identity to anonymity. It was that easy to become a non- person.
She knew she should call AJ. He was still her husband. He ought to know about the bag; their credit cards and bank accounts were joint accounts. It gave her an odd pleasure to think of him suffering.
She’d planned on taking an earlier flight to Denver tomorrow, surprising him before he left. Now she couldn’t leave this airport.
She’d have to call her employer collect (did they even do that any more?). And as for her cards, where would she start? Of course—they had to be canceled. Her passport and birth certificate were at home. Someone (not AJ, couldn’t ask him for a favor ever again) would have to get her passport for her, courier it to her, so she could book a ticket for home. Could someone check into a hotel here without a credit card? She’d seen television images of people stranded at airports during winter storms for days on end. She would be like one of them, without the winter storm, of course. Such a tangle.
For now, she was a nobody. This was what it felt like to be unmoored, unconnected, unidentified—an odd freedom she could not enjoy.
A thought bloomed. Perhaps Vik found her handbag. He’d go through the contents, know intimate details about her. The single tampon tucked away in the inner pocket, her brand of lipstick, the chewing gum she favored. Receipts would tell the tale of her shopping trips. He could call “Home” on her cell phone and reach the answering machine repeatedly. Or AJ might answer.
Oh, yes, Vik could find her business cards, call her office. And the keys. The keys to her car. The keys to her house. He could enter her home, then. She couldn’t remember if she’d made their bed, if there were dishes in the sink.
It could be someone else, though. Someone who could cheerfully step into her home and her life. AJ didn’t care anymore; he’d have left. Would his next communication be through a lawyer? She had no idea how these things worked.
Then, a morbid thought—if she died here no one would know who she was. They’d have to get her fingerprints and match them, she guessed. She couldn’t remember if she’d ever been fingerprinted. They could identify her through her dental records, which were in Denver. Until someone looked for her, she’d remain unidentified.
Her legs refused to hold her up anymore. She plopped down on an end seat in the row of empty chairs, watched the baggage carousel go round, a solitary suitcase enjoying the extended ride.
She was jerked out of contemplation by a strong hand on her shoulder. The graying academic from the plane. With a lightning leap, she registered the presence of her handbag. He’d slung the black- buttoned bag over his shoulder, unashamed it might appear womanly. Disapproval writ large on his countenance.
“Mini, where have you been?” Of course he knew her name; this man had been through her handbag.
She noticed the crow’s feet around his eyes appeared more prominent when he scowled. “I’ve been waiting at Baggage Claim for over an hour. Didn’t you want to pick up your luggage? And before you ask, I looked at the name tag.” He pointed to the red- checked suitcase on the carousel.
Her bag buzzed. “I turned on your phone hoping you’d call yourself.” He handed her the purse.
She stared at the text from AJ—“call home”—then powered the phone off. She made a mental note to change tomorrow’s flight.
She knew she ought to thank the academic but felt too exhausted to do so. Other women would have gushed, perhaps even thrown their arms around him. Some women may have dissolved into tears. Mini found words and expression vaporized. She continued to sit, watching her luggage go round and round on the carousel.
Sudha Balagopal’s recent fiction appears in The Writing Disorder, Chiron Review, Superstition Review, Pax Americana, and other literary journals. Her debut collection of short stories, There are Seven Notes, was published by Roman Books in 2011.